“As long as I have breath within me I shall cry out: ‘Peace, in the name of God.’”
Pope John Paul II wrote these words in his own firm hand on Oct. 16, 2002, and they cry out from papal stationery framed at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Conn., to announce the museum's latest temporary exhibit, “John Paul II: A Passion for Peace.”
The show relies on a multimedia approach to explore the Holy Father's never-ending quest for peace for all mankind. To highlight the Pope's passion for peace, his words are projected on a stand shaped like an open book placed between ever-changing wall-sized photos. A few select artworks from his private collection add to the sense of his personal presence.
At the show's opening, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said John Paul's passion for peace “arises not primarily from his office as a pope but from his identity as a priest.” The exhibit, he explained, attempts to help visitors understand more fully the way the Polish priest who became bishop of the universal Church has given for 25 years and continues to give today.
Conveying the significance of key moments in the Pope's quest for peace, twin galleries set a reverential tone as one of five projectors materializes John Paul's sentences on an open book. Walls become screens filled with ever-changing pictures of the Holy Father as he embraces a crucifix, reflects in prayer or kneels before a statue of Mary amid the Mountain of Crosses in Lithuania.
The compelling photos make us feel part of the ocean of people at a Mass in Gdansk in 1987. Close-ups make us privileged observers at John Paul's side as Mother Teresa kisses his ring.
“And so America, if you want peace, work for justice,” the projected words tell us. “If you want justice, defend life. If you want life, embrace the truth. The truth revealed by God.”
A separate line of small snapshots become thumbnail highlights in a life devoted to peace that began with the birth of Karol Wojtyla in Wadowice, Poland, on May 18, 1920. Photos recall the Pope's pilgrimage to Our Lady of Czestochowa Shrine and his meetings with world leaders to promote peace.
They illustrate what Mikhail Gorbachev as last premier of the Soviet Union pondered: “Everything that happened in Eastern Europe in these last few years would have been impossible without the presence of this Pope and without the important role — including the political role — that he played on the world stage.”
The Vatican loaned a few artifacts from the Pope's private collection for the show. One moving item underlines the prayer-peace connection — a large rosary fashioned by hand from iron horseshoe nails by Polish Solidarity leaders in prison.
Da Pacem Domine — “Give Us Peace, Lord” — reads an inscription on a great bronze lamp John Paul lit at Sarajevo's Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in April 1997 during his peace mission to Bosnia Herzegovina. The event is multiplied as a wall-sized photo.
One of the most striking pieces in the show is the carved wooden sculpture of Christ pierced by a missile by Jan Smigacz. It depicts Jesus standing in agony as a missile pierces his side like a lance and exits from his back.
The sculpture of the papal family by Dr. Anneta Duveen was unveiled at the opening. In triple busts, it portrays Karol Wojtyla as a young boy with his deeply religious father Karol Sr. and mother Emilia.
“If you pick a good subject, you're halfway home,” commented the sculptress, a convert from Judaism and now a secular Franciscan. After this show, the sculpture heads to the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C.
When Christ said “Blessed are the peacemakers” in his Sermon on the Mount, surely he had this Pope in mind.
“John Paul II: A Passion for Peace” runs through Oct. 1.
While you're there, don't miss the museum's second temporary exhibit, “Attack on the World Trade Center,” which — by accident or design — makes a striking companion to the papal display.
Pages from newspapers and magazines graphically capture the Sept. 11 attacks, among them the well-recognized photo of the cross formed from steel beams at Ground Zero.
Two actual steel girders recovered from Ground Zero, more than five feet high, are displayed here to look like huge silhouettes of twin buildings on the skyline.
“We purposely put them at the same attitude and angle as the WTC stood,” explains museum director Larry Sowinski. They become a stirring remembrance and people can touch them.
Another moving segment focuses on New York Fire Dept. Capt. Daniel O'Callaghan. His captain's hat and badge are on exhibit. Mementoes, family pictures and hand-drawn cards from his young children become heart-rending reminders of innocent lives forever changed. Other biographies honor Franciscan Father Mychal Judge, the fire department chaplain killed at Ground Zero.
Visitors find a hope-filled sign outside this exhibit. There hangs a single permanent display — a huge, 387-year-old cross of wood sheathed in copper that stood for centuries atop St. Peter's Basilica. The one who carried it knew suffering and triumphed over it, Christ the redeemer.
A reminder of the only true path to peace, it's part of the permanent collection in the extensive museum, named this year as one of the country's top five religious museums by Penelope Fletcher, deputy director of the John Paul II Cultural Center.
Permanent displays include the story of Servant of God Father Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, in pictures, artifacts and personal effects; a gallery celebrating Christopher Columbus with artifacts dating to 1493; a papal gallery with rare pictures, art and unique artifacts; a visual history of the Knights; and a peaceful outdoor atrium fountain.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.